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Free Press campaign wages battle against rumors that Koch brothers might make a bid for Trib papers

Rumors that conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch have an interest in buying the Tribune papers, which went up for sale earlier this year, have created $660 million worth of angst and outrage.

The fear is that if the brothers owned the papers they would turn it into a political conservative mouthpiece. As a result, The Other 98%, a nonprofit organization, has launched a Free The Press campaign on Indiegogo to outbid the Koch brothers for the Tribune papers, which include the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, among others. With less than two weeks left to reach their goal of $660 million, they have been able to raise little more than $139,000 so far.

But they aren’t the only ones fired up at the thought of the Koch brothers owning so many major papers. Just last week, roughly two dozen protestors gathered around the Tribune Tower in Chicago to stage “a national day of action” to convince the Tribune Company not to sell to the Koch brothers. The protest was just one of 12 others taking place in Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, while more than 500,000 people signed an online petition against the bid.

What’s astounding is that although the Koch brothers recently confirmed they were interested in acquiring newspapers, they have yet to establish a specific interest in the Tribune Company. This begs the question, what is all this outrage even about? Are the Koch brothers really as bad as their left-winged counterparts believe them to be?

Nicole Carty really thinks so. As the face of the Free The Press campaign, she believes they “have manipulated a lot of things – the Koch brothers are pretty much the worst option to gain ownership [of the Tribune Company].”

Having funded climate science denial and Tea Party think tanks, the Koch brothers “have negatively influenced democracy. Their interest in getting people to think the way they want to think is pretty high,” Carty explained. “The entire structure of corporately-owned media is extremely dangerous. It means readers who are looking to news sources for information about the world around them can easily buy into [the agenda] of who owns it.” Instead, she believes there are many options for an ownership model, including a worker-owned co-op or a public trust.

But David Coates, managing editor of newspaper content at Vocus Media Research Group, thinks The Other 98% may be getting a little ahead of themselves. “These protesters are concerned newspapers owned by the Kochs would become radically conservative in their views, however, the best way to undermine a paper’s power is to favor one side or the other. Moderate papers earn the most respect and wield the most influence,” he said. Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, recently noted in an article that pushing an entirely conservative or liberal agenda “would be a bad business move, running a high risk of alienating news staff, readers and advertisers.”

Carty refutes the notion that the Koch brothers aren’t interested in a platform as major as the Tribune Company.  “It’s in their best interest to have a media outlet,” said Carty. Charles Koch, however,  recently told the Wall Street Journal that he and his brother had no desire to make any paper they might purchase a political podium. Instead, he noted they were interested in profitable businesses and producing “real news” without bias.

Although the brothers’ claim they have no political agenda, speculation has already fueled the masses, including rumors that half the staff at the Los Angeles Times is threatening to quit if the Kochs takes over. Coates doesn’t think that’s the best idea. “I have the utmost respect for integrity and principal, but those two things don’t pay the bills and in this economy it is not a good time to make a ‘stand’ on principal,” he said.

Ultimately, The Other 98% hope the campaign will help to inform the Koch brothers what would happen if they did buy the papers. A Koch spokeswoman, however, told the Wall Street Journal that the demonstrators had “no influence on investment decisions.”

How the Free The Press campaign will ultimately affect the sale of this company remains to be seen, noted Coates. “The Kochs will buy Tribune if it makes smart business sense. These gentlemen are in the business of making money. I think they are much more interested in making money and turning a profit than they are losing money and pushing their political agenda.”

This rationalization doesn’t comfort The Other 98%, however, who will continue to fight to buy the papers. “We are continuously trying to spread the word,” said Carty. “[Our campaign] is organized by a mass amount of people. The more people [we have], the more successful the campaign will be.”

With less than 10 days left for the campaign, it will be interesting to see whether the desires of the community can outweigh the pocketbooks of the powerful.

–Cara Gavin

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